So we left Tokyo on the 8th June and headed to a small town called Kawagachiko which is situated in the shadow of Mount Fuji. We made our way there on a bus and once again braved Shinjuku train station to get there, which is absolutely nuts with over 200 exits it is the busiest station in the world. We got there without a hitch and were lucky enough to be collected by our lovely hostel people at K’s House Kawagachiko. We were in 10 person mixed dorm and it was pretty much a full house with a strange old mix of characters. There were a few serious French boys who had climbed to the top of Mount Fuji which is a good effort considering the official climbing season wasn’t until July 1st. Then there was the campest American man you’ve ever heard; whilst relaxing in the common room he was talking about his love of the Hello Kitty stores in Japan. Then there was the lad who never left his bed or ever even looked away from his i-phone for the 3 days we were there, I liked him even more because of his Angry Birds hoodie!
The whole reason we went there was to see Mount Fuji and it can be notoriously difficult to get a clear view of as the clouds often cover it. So we went for a little wander around the town to get some stuff from the local supermarket for breakfast and lunch and to scope out the town. Scoping didn’t take long as it was pretty small, but on the way up the hill we were greeted with just a hint of Fuji’s beauty.
This was nice but the undoubted highlight of the town was the discovery that Japanese Supermarkets love giving out free samples of their products and are too polite to say no or STOP! So we wandered around the aisles at least 3 times and nailed everything in sight! Got to save the pennies as Japan is pretty damn expensive. In out time in the supermarket I think we ‘sampled’ cold coffee, duck gouza, spring roll, chicken and pasta sauce, tempura, pickled squid, seafood noodles, and 10 different types of cakes, breads and pastries (the lemon croissant thing was the nuts!) After over-staying our welcome we grabbed some sushi and went to find somewhere peaceful to eat it. We failed miserably and ended up eating it sat on a small brick wall, in what seemed to be the busiest short cut in town. It did however seem to hugely entertain the locals as they all smiled, slowed down and waved with glee!
After this we wandered down to the bridge and got some awesome photos but more worryingly managed to spook some old dear into falling off her bike as she passed us. It was pretty weird really, we saw her coming so stood on the raised curb of the bridge to let her pass but as she went passed she decided to swerve and clipped her pedal on the side of the bridge causing her to go out of control, fortunately she hit the raised curb and not go into the oncoming traffic or over the bridge (to a 50 foot drop to the lake). We ran to help her as her husband was a bit further ahead and she was pretty shaken up and had cut her lip pretty badly. Thankfully Caroline had some tissues so we gave her the whole pack and she was very polite and I guess a little embarrassed. We wandered into town and found an automatic baseball practice range! It was awesome I of course went macho and went straight for the 100 km/h cage and failed miserably. We moved to the 80 km/h and did better, although it was at this point Caroline’s competitive streak came out in all its glory. After failing to make any ‘significant’ connections with the balls the bottom lip came out and the bat was blamed!
Our second day here was pretty cool as we went up the cable car to get a better view of the peak, unfortunately it was a little cloudy, but Caroline managed to get a couple of crystal clear snaps early in the morning. The evening was a little more lively as we shared a few beers and dinner with two Aussies, an American soldier, a New Yorker and a German. We wandered up the hill to a local recommendation, after nearly giving up we found it and were treated with a pretty spectacular restaurant. There was a giant water wheel outside and behind the sliding doors was a huge room consisting of straw matting and sunken tables. It was like something straight out of Kill Bill. The food was the local specialty of thick noodle soups with all sorts of various ingredients, there were a couple of lads who sampled the wild boar. We decided against the chicken gizzards and the snapping turtle!
Next up we headed to the ancient town city of Matsumoto via bus and train. The key here is to know how long each part of the journey should last and keep an eye on the time because there aren’t a lot of signs to help and the announcements aren’t often in English. That reminds me of the first bit of the title of this blog… NOISES! Everywhere you go in Japan something is making a noise at you. The pedestrian crossings, of which there are thousands, either bird tweet or play you the magic roundabout theme tune, every other shop is either playing music or has someone on a megaphone outside it shouting their latest deals, in the big cities the neon billboards play music and their slot machine arcades (Packchinos) are possibly the loudest places on earth with a deafening concoction of techno music and the thunder of the ball bearings the locals all seem to play with, mixed in with the fact you can smoke in there makes it possibly the worst place on Earth.
Back to Matsumoto. This time we were staying at Backpackers Matsumoto which was run by a very lovely Irishman called Brain and his Japanese wife. They only opened it in February and it was a lovely converted traditional old Japanese home. It was the closest we came to staying in a Ryokan (traditional Japanese guest houses). It was a great little experience as we slept on futons on the floor in our separate bedroom complete with rice paper sliding doors. The city is most famous for its ancient castle. We went to look around it and it made for some amazing photos and inspired me to start learning a bit more about my camera and its 1000’s of settings. I’m pretty pleased with this little beauty:
I decided to not go inside the castle and let Caroline go and get a history lesson from her local guide Morio. Whilst in Matsumoto we also went a ridiculously steep walk which was about two hours up pretty uphill mountain roads, which were practically deserted apart from one old man who was cycling down who stopped for a chat even though he didn’t speak a word of English and us only three words of Japanese, but he seemed delighted to speak to us for twenty minutes whilst pointing at a few places on our map and laughing and smiling a lot! In hindsight its moments like that which will make this trip special! At the top we enjoyed our hard earned packed lunch (Ham sandwiches and crisps! Remember the budget,) beside a very beautiful lake.
The next day we set off for the Ancient town of Takayama but stopped off in the Japanese Alps to sample something of a Japanese tradition called an Onsen. This takes us to the third bit of our blog title NAKEDNESS! The Onsens are traditional hot spas where the outdoor pools of varying temperatures are all supplied by the water from the local natural hot springs which are fully of eggy sulphur. They are like spas but full of rules and protocols you are meant to follow. The first of which is that you have to be naked when you are in the bathing area. So Caroline and I went our separate ways for a few hours as there are separate bathing areas for men and women. I can only speak for myself for the next part! Swallowing my British prudishness I stripped of and strolled confidently into the baths (thanks to Rich and the gents at Reach Fitness, being naked isn’t as daunting as it used to be). The first thing you have to do is wash yourself whilst sitting on a stool, kinda weird but hey-ho. The only thing you have to conserve any modesty is a small towel, the size of a large flannel (big enough I hear you all say), but there are strictly no towels allowed in the pools so you have to put it on your head whilst in the water! So out into the fresh air I strolled. Thankfully it was a nice sunny day so things were ok!! The first pool was a pleasant temperature but was in a wooden barrel so I couldn’t be sure if I was bathing in the drains or not, so quickly jumped out. The temperatures of the 8 or 9 pools were all different, and the hottest one was pretty full on, I only managed a couple of minutes in there. The Onsen was a great experience and the nudity wasn’t as bad as we feared, and we both left a bit more relaxed. Great value for less than four quid!!
We arrived to the old town of Takayama in a pretty torrential downpour, only our second bit of rain, which is pretty good considering its rainy season in Japan. The town is famous for its old streets where all the buildings are still made of wood and it was really very quaint to walk down them. The other thing it is famous for is its Hida beef.
These delectable skewers are made of a very special marbled beef and are cooked right in front of you and basted with a little soy sauce. They were amazing. We also wandered the food market and nailed the free samples!
We went out for dinner that night and had a bizarre experience when we tried our luck in a restaurant that seemed busy with locals. We poked our cheery British heads in to enquire about a table for two. The waitress looked at the chef in a little panic, he grunted in Japanese and put us in the corner by the door, despite the free tables elsewhere. We immediately wanted to bail, they then handed us the menu, which stated there would be a cover charge to begin with, at that point we’d had enough, made our excuses and left, much to the anger of the chef, whose biggest problem was that we had wiped our hands on the moist napkins! This is our only one real gripe with Japan. Quite a few times we have been made to feel a little unwelcome as tourists. Many bars have a cover charge if you are a tourist and some of the bars won’t even let you in if you aren’t Japanese. It’s really strange because the vast majority of Japanese people we’ve met are so friendly and nice, yet there is this kind of slight prejudice against you as an outsider. We also came across it in Tokyo and Kyoto, its the kind of thing that you wouldn’t get away with in England.
Our second to last stop was to the city of Kyoto which is famous for its Geisha girls who are the most respected in Japan. We wandered around the Gion district trying to catch a glimpse of these made-up ladies, Caroline swears she saw one in the front seat of a taxi, I’m not convinced. Kyoto seemed like a cool city but was almost impossible to get a reasonably priced beer without having to pay the tourist tax. There was a street full of about 200 bars but none of them were particularly welcoming.
Last up was the city of Osaka, the old capital city of Japan. This was an amazing city and a shame we didn’t get more than a day there. In the one day we were there we went to the Aquarium which was amazing but horrendously busy. We also went up the Osaka Sky Tower which had a floating roof garden on the 39th floor and gave us amazing views over the sprawling city. Another little side note was whilst looking like stereotypical lost tourists an elderly Japanese gentleman asked where we were going, we told him and he said he would show us. Rather than point he actually walked us there which was a good 10 minutes away through a very complicated route. He never expected anything in return, he just said he went to England last year and had loved it. It’s moments like that which make you smile.
We spent the night in a capsule hotel, which was certainly an experience, it was a little like sleeping in a morgue or a spaceship (haven’t done either). You basically get assigned a pod number and that is your capsule, there is a radio, a plug socket and a light in there and that is it. Pretty damn weird but worth doing once.
We finished the night by going to an awesome Takoyaki restaurant. The Takoyaki are balls of batter that are carefully cooked and have a piece of octopus put in the middle of the. They are delicious. Cooked on the outside and gooey in the middle, and you cover them in BBQ sauce and spices. We also had some wicked squid Tepanyaki noodles and an Osakan speciality cabbage pancake called Odenmeyaki (or something!). It was a belting way to finish off our time in Japan.
We absolutely loved so much about Japan; the people, the traditions, the food (especially), the weather and the ease of travel.
Today we left Osaka and are heading to Laos eventually. So far we have been in 3 countries in 12 hours; Japan (Osaka), China (Shanghai) and Thailand (Bangkok). We are currently sitting in a particularly crap airport in Bangkok waiting to fly up to Chaing Rai before crossing over the border to Laos where we will be catching the slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang.
The final tale of joy comes from Caroline World. Now the toilets in Japan are pretty special, in that they have a squirty bidet feature that cleans things when you are finished. Obviously all these controls are in Japanese. But the third button along sometimes has a ladies face on it (see below)…
Caroline was a little unsure of what this feature was for and asked me, “is that for ladies to wash their face with?”
After a pause I told her probably best not to try it!
We’ve been busy with the camera and please feel free to check out the latest snaps.
Japan after Tokyo Album
Miss you all, but have had an amazing start and we are looking forward to so much more to come.
Tom and Caroline.